You might remember that a few months ago, the Girl Scouts Research Institute released some findings about young women and fashion. The findings revealed some alarming things about how images of fashion models and other media representations of women’s bodies affect the self image of the girls consuming them. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that even though girls and young women knew that the bodies being presented to them by fashion magazines were unrealistic and in some cases unhealthy, they aspired to look like those models all the same.
The problem, in other words, was the cognitive dissonance between what the girls and young women knew and what they wanted. The result was that even though they knew it wasn’t good for them, they were crash dieting and over-exercising and otherwise hurting themselves in order to look more like models. At the time, I concluded that based on these findings, media literacy – teaching young women to be critical of airbrushing and lack of fashion industry diversity – isn’t enough. It’s certainly an important start to educate girls and young women about the prevalence of photoshopping and the wholesale reconstruction of a model’s body in post-production. It’s crucial to teach girls about the dangers of trying to achieve a body shape or size that naturally isn’t your own. But as long as that body shape is held up as the only one our culture recognizes as beautiful, this gap between knowledge and behavior will remain. Until we change our cultural ideas about what’s beautiful, girls and young women will try to achieve the current, narrow version of “beauty,” even if they know it’s bad for them.
It seems that the Girl Scouts recognized this disconnect too, because now, in partnership with the Dove Self Esteem Fund, the Girl Scouts have launched a new campaign called “Changing the Face of Fashion.” According to their creative director Catherine Westergaard, the campaign “is all about redefining beauty, celebrating the new diverse faces of fashion, and making girls feel confident.” The campaign features four racially diverse plus-size women, all models, talking about what it’s like to be a plus-size model, what it means to be beautiful, and so on.
Here’s their main PSA (transcript below the jump):
It’s pretty good, but even better are the videos on the Girl Scouts website that showcase the individual women, telling the stories of how they became plus-size models and how they came to feel beautiful after years without positive media reinforcement.
Julie Henderson was in the ROTC program in high school and was on the verge of signing up to become a fighter pilot, when she changed her mind and decided to pursue professional basketball instead. Now, she’s a plus-size model. Anansa Sims, when asked what she’d be doing if she weren’t a model, said, “I would be a financial analyst. Growing up in school, math was always my favorite subject, and I majored in finance in college, so that was really the path I was going on.”
It’s refreshing to see models depicted as whole people: not just as human coat hangers, but as smart, talented and ambitious women who also happen to be professionally pretty. As much as I dislike the idea of fashion models standing in as role models for young women, if it’s going to happen – and it is, whether I like it or not – these are the kind of models I want in that position. These are fashion models who have their heads screwed on, who don’t say stupid, damaging things like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and who take seriously their responsibilities as role models, intentional or otherwise.
Lizzie Miller – the woman famous for revealing to Glamour readers last year that models have bellies, too – makes an interesting comment in her video. After talking about how she never thought of modeling as a possible career because she had only ever seen skinny models, she mentions that seeing women like Beyonce and JLo rise to prominence gave her confidence because “they kinda look like me.” Later, when she’s talking about inner beauty, though, she says that “it really comes from the inside; if you feel beautiful, people will see you as beautiful.” This is partly true, of course, but her own comments about JLo and Beyonce reveal that this is a two-way street, or perhaps a mild case of the Catch-22s: people will see you as beautiful if you do, but it’s a lot easier to see yourself as beautiful if other people do. Which is why, of course, it’s so important for girls and young women to be able to see themselves, even just a little bit, in models and actresses. As Leona Palmer’s mother pointed out to her when she had the chance to become a model, if Palmer had been fourteen or fifteen and seen women who looked like she did in magazines, “it would have changed [her] whole life.”
Of course, despite the racial diversity in the line-up and despite the fact that four models are plus-size, they are also all cis-gendered and able-bodied. There aren’t any women of Native American, Asian, South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. They all have long, flowing hair and adhere to a pretty “womanly” definition of female beauty – there’s no androgyny or ambiguity here. So if our goal is to see a sustainable, genuinely diverse range of media representations of women’s bodies, we can’t pretend that we’ve reached it yet. But we should also recognize that the fact that these women are working as models and being tapped as part of the future of the fashion industry is progress, to be celebrated and encouraged (and imitated).
So, here’s hoping that these four women, and other models-turned-role-models like them, will make it into magazines. Here’s hoping that they’ll continue to spread, both overtly and covertly, the message that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Because like Palmer’s mother says, if girls grow up seeing bodies like their own included in our cultural definition of beauty, whole lives can be changed.
Leona Palmer: According to the Girl Scouts Research Institute
Anansa Sims: Nine out of ten girls
Lizzie Miller: Say that fashion and the media
Julie Henderson: Puts a lot of pressure on them to be thin
LM: And 31%
LP: Admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat to lose weight
AS: Together, we can change this story
LM: And show our girls
AS: That it’s our differences
JH: That make us beautiful
LP: Log on to www.girlscouts.org/itsyourstory
LM: To hear more